Everyone loves a parade, especially after the last six weeks of Lenten gloom. Palm Sunday--the last Sunday of Lent--beckons to us, "Let's hold a parade." The choir and the congregation sing "All Glory, Laud and Honor," and we wave our palm branches. As a child, Palm Sunday was always one of my favorite Sundays. We were given a palm and we were told to wave it. Finally, we children had something to do in church!
So we come to church this day because we love the movement, the noise and all the action. Even dull churches come alive on this festive day. Church becomes a spectacle, and we participate in a parade. Even if we don't understand everything that is going on, we like the fact that a lot is happening. It's like the opening scene of The Lion King on Broadway with actors and actresses dressed like wild animals singing and parading onto the stage.
Yet there is juxtaposition. The festival frenzy of waving palms, the marvelous chaos of Jesus entering Jerusalem in a parade, the screaming disciples and braying donkeys will soon give away to the betrayal, the anguish, the abandonment, suffering and death. We who shout "Hosanna" will soon cry, "Crucify Him!" Why does one worship service offer such mixed signals? There's a powerful dissonance on this Sunday--two clashing moods, two differing sentiments, two varying attitudes towards life and towards God.
I remember years ago attending a performance of the Philadelphia Orchestra. I enjoy classical music and listening to the soaring harmonies of a symphony. All I remember of this concert, however, was that a new atonal piece of music was performed. It was marked by complete dissonance. Not a note of harmony was sounded. When it was over, I did not clap. Dissonance is difficult, because most of us long for harmony.
But sometimes dissonance is reality. A grandchild is born and a grandparent dies. The parade and the Passion. A teenager gets into the college of his choice and soon loses his license for drunk driving. The parade and the Passion. We buy a special gift and dine at a favorite restaurant, but let an argument spoils our wedding anniversary. The parade and the Passion. Sometimes there is dissonance in our lives. Life is not always a parade. The pomp and circumstance are overshadowed by the Passion.
In the old days, it wasn't that way--the Passion and the Parade were neatly separated. We read the Passion narrative about Christ's crucifixion two Sundays before Easter. It was called the Sunday of the Passion. On the following Sunday--Palm Sunday--we focused on Jesus' triumphant entry into the capital city on the first day of Holy Week. It was good--one Sunday to acknowledge suffering and another to hold a parade.
I'm not sure when but somewhere along the line they switched the reading of the Passion narrative to the Sunday before Easter. Those who organize the church calendar combined two Sundays into one--Palm Sunday and the Sunday of the Passion. Some argue that the change was made when Good Friday stopped being a national holiday. Many of you who are 50 or older remember not going to school on Good Friday. Many businesses were closed. Good Friday was a day for going to church. Services often lasted three hours from noon until 3 o'clock. Preachers preached on "the last seven words" of Jesus. We took time to stand at the foot of the cross and to recognize that we were sinners.
When businesses no longer closed on Good Friday, fewer people ventured into a church, stood at the foot of the cross and heard the Passion story. The Church decided to retell the Passion on Palm Sunday. We now call it the Sunday of the Passion as well as Palm Sunday. We combine the parade and the Passion. Otherwise Christians would jump from "Lead on, O King Eternal" to "Welcome Happy Morning," moving from one Christian triumph to another with no cross or valley of suffering in between.
If you look carefully at the church ads in newspapers, you will see that most churches still call this day "Palm Sunday" rather than the Sunday of the Passion. Everyone loves a parade. We get them to church by inviting them to shout, "Hosanna!" rather than "Crucify Him!" The Passion doesn't market well. As one preacher put it, "We don't like a hung-up-to-die Jesus. That's not our idea of God. We want a strong, powerful God, an omnipotent God who is in control, a God of majesty and glory."
The truth is that the Passion does not market well in a world where we prefer to let the palm branches prevail and pretend that life is like a parade. Sometimes we do everything that we can to make others think that our families are full of joy and festivity. We talk about our vacations and the good times, rarely disclosing the portions of our lives that are like the Passion. Yet, our true friends are those to whom we can reveal the Passion of our lives.
The word "passion" comes from a Latin word "passio," which means "undergoing." Christ's Passion encompasses the suffering, pain and punishment that He underwent for our sake before dying and rising to new life. His Passion changed all of life. As Christ's people we are a "passionate" people, for we, too, have often undergone our fair share of suffering. The door of suffering can often become the door of faith and new life.
I have a relative who was a seminary dean. He wrote a book about Charles Brent, the great missionary to the Philippines in the early part of the 20th century. Brent said, "There is a law as deep as God that the glory of ultimate success can be reached only through suffering...However inexplicable the mystery may be, human life, in order to progress, must have suffering or suffering's equivalent...The world's work has always been done by persons who have suffered pains or taken pains." Passion, more than parades, is what ultimately shapes our lives, but we need both the parades and the Passion to be complete.
So we need to keep the children waving the palm branches and singing "All Glory, Laud and Honor" and recalling sweet hosannas in a world filled with far too many crucifying events. Our joys are mingled with our sorrows, and our sorrows are mixed with moments of joy. The mixed signals of Palm Sunday and the Sunday of the Passion reflect reality. They remind us that courage, heroism and hope mingle with sin, fear and evil. This Sunday reminds us that our lives are complicated. The Passion invites us to confront the difficult realities of our lives rather than pretend that life is like a perfect parade when it is far from it.
That's why Holy Week is called the center of the Christian life. In all four gospels, this week is the climax of the story of Jesus' life. No other world religion has at its center a man condemned to die by public torture. The Gnostic gospels, which have received so much attention in recent years, differ from the biblical gospels in many significant ways, but the biggest difference of all is that the Gnostic gospels omit the crucifixion. They skip the Passion. As Reinhold Niebuhr once said, "This is a view that insists on a God without wrath bringing men and women without sin into a kingdom without judgment through a Christ without a cross." It is a false presentation of life as a parade without any Passion.
The truth is that many of us do not like unhappy endings. There's part of each of us that wants to sanitize life, the way the Victorians sanitized Shakespeare. Victorian theater producers rewrote Shakespeare and gave happy endings to the bard's best known tragedies Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, and Hamlet. Families were reconciled and lovers lived happily ever after.
The challenge for most of us is that we do not know what to do with the hard bits of life or the hard bits of religion--the painful stories, the betrayal of Jesus, the angry mob, His torture and crucifixion. We find it all too offensive and too hard in our already complicated and painful lives to focus on things so disturbing. No wonder that over 400 years after Jesus' death the cross was never depicted in paintings, drawings or carvings. The first illustration we have of the crucifixion is a carving found on the door of Santa Sabina on the Aventine Hill in Rome which dates from 425 A.D. It wasn't until the seventh century that the cross became the primary Christian symbol.
That's why an architect who designed an enormous new church in California refrained from using the cross. "We do not want any crosses on the church, either outside or inside. None," he said. "We don't want anybody to think of failure or weakness. Why would we want a symbol of a man slumped dead on a cross after his few friends have gotten out of Dodge?"
Yet, the four gospels do not suppress a word about Jesus' death and the ugly way that humans treated God's own Son. The Evangelists did not sanitize the story, but put it in a central position. They tell a long narrative about Jesus' death. The accounts vary in their details, but there can be no doubt about their foundational place in Christian history. The crucifixion and resurrection set Jesus apart from every other figure in history. Paul insists, "I preach Christ and Christ crucified." Why? Because the cross reminds us that some things in this world are cruel, painful, sinful and violent. We have to preach the cross even in nice suburbs and in wealthy communities. We preach it everywhere there is pain, ugliness and beauty, crushing hurt and dazzling lights.
The Christian message is that if you believe in God, sometimes things don't work out the way you imagine they would. TV evangelists promise those who follow Jesus will enjoy a serene life, but Jesus makes no promises like this. Rather, He instructed His disciples to get in a boat and cross the sea. A storm hit and nearly killed them. They almost died not because they disobeyed Jesus, but because they followed His words. If you and I follow Jesus, we will get into some pretty tricky positions. It won't always be fun or smooth sailing, but it will be significant because bearing the cross is always significant.
Palm Sunday reminds us that God's love is the only thing that makes sense out of human suffering, conflict and tragedy. God's love doesn't explain it all away; it just makes those things more possible to bear, to see in them the hand of God reaching out to redeem us and make us whole. Everyone loves a parade, but life has its moments of Passion that cut us to the bone. Yet our lives are not a relentless cycle of "Hosannas" and shouts of "Crucify Him." The final words are "Hallelujah. He is Risen." We can live with hope.
The British author Graham Greene once waited two and a half years for a 15-minute appointment with the Roman Catholic mystic Padre Pio, who resided in an Italian monastery. Padre Pio was reputed to be "a living saint" and bore on his body the "stigmata" or the wounds of Christ. On the day Greene was due to meet with the mystic, Greene first attended a mass where Padre Pio officiated. Their appointment was to begin immediately after the mass. Instead, Greene left the church, headed for the airport and flew directly back to London. When asked why he broke the appointment he had waited for two and a half years, Greene said, "I was not ready for the manner in which that man could change my life." Perhaps the same could be said for you and me. We want to focus on the parade and the festivities of life because we are not ready for the Passion and the way in which that man--Jesus--can change our lives. His Passion will change us forever, if we let it. Amen.
Let us pray. God of Grace and God of Glory, we are silent and humble before the cross. Help us this day to drop to our knees and listen in silent, reverent awe, knowing that Jesus suffered and died in anguish so that a bridge of trust and truth might be built that allow us to know that you, our Father, have forgiven us and that you love us and are watching over us, even when we suffer. In Jesus' name we pray. Amen.